Dementia is an overall term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include memory loss, difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, that are severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities, impeded with his or her ability to ‘navigate’ society, or care for him or herself. A person with dementia may also experience changes in mood or behaviour. In early stages, people may experience anger, irritability, and depression and in later stages, this can change to aggression, physical or verbal outbursts, restlessness, delusions and sleep issues.
Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse as more brain cells become damaged and eventually die.
Dementia is not a specific disease. Many diseases can cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia (due to strokes), Lewy Body disease, head trauma, fronto-temporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. These conditions can have similar and overlapping symptoms.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of ‘growing old’ as many confuse it with age-related cognitive decline. It is irreversible and destroys brain cells, causing thinking ability and memory to deteriorate.
For a great overview of this topic, check out the work by Dr Sabina Brennan of Trinity College Dublin and Trinity Brain Health. They have a fantastic serise of videos on the topic; scroll down towards the bottom of the page and watch the video What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia?
10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s
Whether you’re experiencing possible symptoms or are concerned for someone you care about, the Alzheimer Society of Canada has developed the following list of signs to look for:
- Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities – forgetting things often or struggling to retain new information.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks– forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed.
- Problems with language– forgetting words or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
- Disorientation in time and space– not knowing what day of the week it is or getting lost in a familiar place.
- Impaired judgment – not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
- Problems with abstract thinking– not understanding what numbers signify on a calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
- Misplacing things– putting things in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
- Changes in mood and behaviour– exhibiting severe mood swings from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
- Changes in personality– behaving out of character such as feeling paranoid or threatened.
- Loss of initiative– losing interest in friends, family and favourite activities.
Reducing the risk, it’s easier than you think
So-called lifestyle [modifiable, as in largely within your control] risk factors for Alzheimer’s include
- high blood pressure
- cognitive inactivity or low education
- physical activity.
In fact it’s estimated that 50% of cases of Alzheimer’s worldwide are due to the 7 modifiable risk factors list above. This is not a bad news story, quite the opposite actually as there several things you can to do to reduce your risk !
What can you do to maintain or improve your brain health?
- Be physically active
- Avoid smoking
- Track your numbers: keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight within recommended ranges
- Stay connected socially and interact regularly with others
- Make healthy food choices, eat a well-balanced and healthy diet:
- Eat a variety of plant foods everyday and seek out green leafy & dark orange vegetables, berries, nuts & seeds
- Include fish or seafood, that is not deep-fried, at least once a week
- Include legumes [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans] weekly
- Aim for more whole/intact grains
- Limit alcohol
- Where possible, prepare as many of your own meals and snacks at home and limit highly processed and fast foods. Being prepared means you won’t leave healthy eating to chance.
- Reduce stress
- Challenge your brain by trying something new, playing games or learning a new language
- Protect your head by wearing a helmet when you engage in sporting activities
For more on healthy aging, check out my post Aging Well, It’s Easier Than You Think
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.